Every Game Should Have A Train Level

Gif: IO Interactive / Kotaku

Hitman 3 ends with one wild ride. The game’s first five levels are sprawling playgrounds that demand stealth, caution, and careful planning. The final level, “Untouchable,” is a fast-paced race through a train. It is, in a word, awesome. More, please! Actually, you know what? Just go ahead and put a train level in every single game.

“Untouchable” starts off cramped. You, as Agent 47, wake up in a sterile, windowless room. You’re mysteriously shirtless, EKG electrodes plastered on your torso. You walk into the next room, see a doctor, and do the whole Hitman thing (knock him out and steal his clothes). You stroll through a few narrow rooms, open a door, and...WHOOSH! You’re on a train, zipping through the Carpathian Mountains in the snowy Romanian backcountry. Would you look at that?

Your goal couldn’t be simpler: make your way to the other end of the train and take out the bad guy. But there’s a twist. Unlike the previous levels, you’re given carte blanche to eliminate any members of Providence, the secretive evil cabal in Hitman lore. In “Untouchable,” that means basically anyone you see. In fact, you even get experience points for it. (Killing non-targets in the other five levels causes some alarming red text alerting you to your moral misdeeds.)

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If you can ignore the speeding cargo train, the first five minutes of “Untouchable” are much like any other Hitman 3 level: a lot of sneaking, stealing clothes, and scanning the environment for comically large numbers that obviously correspond to a nearby keypad for a locked door. Then you get a pistol—and the situation goes off the rails.

Between the linear level structure, the license to kill literally anyone you see, and the small armory at your fingertips (in addition to a pistol, you can also find an automatic rifle and a tactical shotgun), “Untouchable” feels immediately familiar. You duck behind cover. You pop headshots, or at least try to. You’ve probably played this—or something more or less exactly like it—before. My colleague Lisa Marie Segarra noted, not incorrectly, that it “could have been from any Uncharted game.”

There’s a fair case to be made that “Untouchable” isn’t a “Hitman level,” per se. And yes, it bucks the core tenets of the series. Fans of IO Interactive’s recent Hitman trilogy might bristle at how much the level does away with the stealth and subterfuge that defines everything else in Hitman 3. (I haven’t played Hitman or Hitman 2, but I get the sense that “Untouchable” subverts the levels in those games, too.) On the other hand, it’s on a fucking train. That means you can do stuff like this:

Gif: IO Interactive / Kotaku
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There’s a specific thrill to train levels that you can only find, really, in train levels. The way the environment zips by at blistering speeds ramps up the stakes, if only psychologically. That you’re confined to a narrow space also narrows your focus. The train level needs no explanation. You know what to do and where to go and how to do it. The train level is as brilliant in its simplicity as it is in its ability to blow your socks off.

In general, the train level is thrilling. Everyone knows the illustrious 13th chapter from Uncharted 2, where protagonist Nathan Drake has to navigate a speeding locomotive as it barrels through a lush forest and into an icy cliffside. Uncharted: Lost Legacy, the Drake-free spinoff from 2017, features a similarly electrifying scene.

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Of course, Naughty Dog doesn’t have a monopoly on the concept and certainly isn’t the only developer to expertly deploy trains in a video game. Recall Red Dead Redemption 2, where, in addition to major narrative beats with trains at the center, you could rob coach cars in the open world (with varying degrees of success). That’s a train level! Gears of War’s fifth act? Train level. The maglev stage from Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy? Iconic train level. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks? One long train level. Metro Exodus? Basically same. Plotting out a meticulous subway network in Cities: Skylines or Mini Metro? Sure: Train level—unless I’m the only one who finds the thankless task of make-believe city planning a rousing endeavor.

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Train stages rule even in games where they don’t make a lick of sense. Remember in Forza Horizon 4, when you had to race a buggy against the Flying Scotsman, a massive passenger coach? That ruled! Or how about the train graveyard in Final Fantasy VII Remake? If that’s not one long “train fight” in the most literal sense, I don’t know what is.

And here’s the thing: A train fight is never not awesome. I didn’t realize this until playing Hitman 3—a stealth-focused masterpiece you’d think wouldn’t be able to squeeze in a bombastic set-piece yet does with resounding success—but yes, every game should have a train fight.

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Staff Writer, Kotaku

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DISCUSSION

CaptainJanewaysCat
Capt. Janeway's Imaginary Cat

In Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate the great surprise to me was when I beat a boss and the cut scene mentioned that I get his train I laughed it off but then from then on, my HQ was from that train! And I can hop on or off at any time for the rest of the game.

Not a level per se but the idea of having your own train through out the game being able to just sit there an do nothing, buy stuff, watch the city from the roof, etc. was clever and fun.